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Embracing God’s Call: From Isolation to Celebration – African American Women in Ministry Conference, 2014

by Rachel Chapman, Christian Fellowship UCC

Rachel Chapman“Truly a sacred space” was the oft-repeated description of Franklinton Center at Bricks, the location of the UCC African American Women in Ministry Conference 2014, held October 9-11.  Franklinton Center at Bricks, partially supported by UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries, was once a plantation used to break unruly slaves.  Transformed into a school for educating sharecroppers’ children, it later became a very successful trade and Christian education college. Today it is a resource and conference center deeply rooted in the community, educating and inspiring people from all over in social justice, hunger, environmental racism and related issues.  It was the perfect place to bring women of God together “Embracing God’s Call”, the theme of this year’s conference.

The AAWIM conference was established in the early 1980’s by Yvonne Delk and Bernice Powell Jackson to help African American women to network and not feel so separated on their sacred journey of being called to ministry.  As in those early days, the almost 90 laywomen, members in discernment, seminarians and ministers in attendance at this year’s conference were able to dialogue, laugh and cry as they shared stories of their experiences on the road from isolation to celebration. Some described opposition encountered from men in the Church, other women and even some family members as they shared their call to ministry.  Even today in our progressive UCC there were accounts of loneliness, bullying and rejection due to discrimination for ageism (too young or too old), marital status, sexual orientation and more.  But, there were also many statements of perseverance, knowledge and faith that God would not take them to it and not bring them through it.

This gathering of predominately black women, ranging in age from 20 something to 80 something, represented 19 different UCC conferences.  Five national staff members were also present. The 3-day conference offered community mealtimes, panel discussions and wisdom exchanges on transitions in ministry, sisterhood, search and call and more. Worship services were led by dynamic preachers Rev. Jennifer Leath, PhD., Rev. Valerie Bridgeman, PhD., and Rev. Dr. Christine Wiley.  Angels could not help but smile as all the women lifted their voices to joyously and harmoniously sing hymns and spirituals a cappella.

As wonderful as this sounds, it gets better. The conference was the perfect opportunity to celebrate the Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk’s 40 year anniversary as the first African American woman ordained in the UCC and her 50 year anniversary in ministry. The Friday evening worship service was followed by a tribute to Dr. Delk. The attendees, many dressed in the vibrant colors of African attire, observed a tribute by Dr. Delk’s family members, a liturgical dance by the UCC’s Capital Fundraising Executive, Susan Mitchell, and many comments from others who know her well, before hearing Dr. Delk’s rousing and uplifting story of her life’s journey, “From Isolation to Celebration.”   The evening ended with blessings and laying on of hands, followed by a reception.

As the conference ended and the women prepared to leave the sacred space of Franklinton Center, there were smiles and hugs and tears of joy for the connections and reconnections made and the nurturance felt knowing they should no longer feel isolated thanks to the African American Women in Ministry Sisterhood.

The next conference will be in 2016.

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